a mystic poet
in 1661

"Armenians in India"

pp 167-77 ; pp 179-81 & p 194,

by Mesrovb Jacob Seth
Calcutta 1937

recherche historiographique
et numérisation par
Nil V. Agopoff

Tombe du soufi Sarmad dans les jardins de la Grande Mosquée de Dehli

Photo UGAB Magazine N°10 3°T 2001

Sarmad, a mystic poet beheaded in 1661

"Armenians in India" pp 167-77 ; pp 179-81 & p 194, by Mesrovb Jacob Seth - Calcutta 1937

[167] Armenians and merchants have been synanomous words in India, for it was trade and commerce that attracted the Armenians to this tropical country from their homes in the delectable and snow-clad mountains of Armenia, from the days of remote antiquity.

Apart from eminent merchants, clever diplomats, great soldiers, able governors and administrators, casters of huge pieces of ordnance and manufacturers of firelocks, which, according to Marshman, "were superior to the Tower-proof muskets of the Company", the Armenians have given to India a poet of great merit whose fame spread over Mohammedan India as a saint and a scholar, in the middle of the 17th century, and to this day, his memory is revered and kept green by all lovers of the noble, the beautiful and the sublime, not only in this country, but in the countries where the charms of the beautiful language of the immortal Ferdosi. Nizami, Saadi, Hafez, Jami and Khayyam, have captured and captivated the imagination of millions.

But who was this remarkable poet whom even the mighty Emperor Aurungzebe, the last of the Great Moguls, dreaded and ultimately beheaded, as can be seen later on.

Let us first tap the European sources for reliable information about this remarkable Armenian.

In the Oriental Biographical Dictionary by Thomas William Beale, revised and enlarged in 1894 by that eminent Persian scholar and historian. Henry George Keene,(*1) [168] M.R.A.S., we find the following authoritative account of Sarmad :— "Sarmad, the poetical name of an Armenian merchant who came to India in the reign of the Emperor Shah Jehan. In one of his journeys towards Thatta, he fell so passionately in love with a Hindu girl(*2) that he became distracted and would go about the streets naked. He was well versed in the Persian language and was a good poet. In the beginning of the reign of Alamgir [Aurungzebe] he was put to death on account of his disobeying the orders of that Emperor, who had commanded him not to so about naked, This even took place about the year 1661 (1072 A.H.). Some say that the real cause of his execution was a Rubcu [quatrain] which he had composed, the translation of which is: "The Mullas say that Mohammad entered the heavens, but Sarmad says that the heavens entered Mohammad " His tomb is close to the Juma Musjid at Delhi. Following in the footsteps of his compatriots, Sarmad came out to India as a merchant from Persia by sea He set up in business in the town of Thathah in Sindh, on the shores of the Indus, where his business thrived exceedingly and he spent his days in comfort and peace. During his sojourn in that city he contracted a close friendship with a Hindu lad, Abhai Chand by name. This was the turning point in his life, for unlike his calculating and serious minded countrymen, he neglected his business, lost the equilibrium of his mind altogether and relinquishing his life of comfort and peace, he lived thenceforth the austere life of a naked Hindu fakir- (ascetic) and in this nude state he would go and sit at the door of his beloved Abhai Chand. The following translation of a distich shows the true sentiment of the distracted Sarmad : "I know not if in this spherical old monastery [the world} My God is Abhai Chand or some one else."
The boy's father seeing the earnestness of the ascetic, and the purity of the attachment, allowed him to come to his house with [169] the result that his son Abhai Chand became so much attached to Sarmad that he could not bear to live apart from him. Soon after this, both left Thathah and went to Delhi. Shah Jehan was then the Mogul Emperor of India. People flocked round Sarmad and many found him to be a man of great sanctity and supernatural powers.

The eldest son of the Emperor, the unfortunate prince Dara Shikoh, whose devotion to Brahmanical dogmas and theosophical beliefs is well known, was one of Sarmad's constant visitors and staunch admirers. It was Dara Shikoh who brought the miraculous powers of the saint, (Sarmad) to the notice of his august father, the Emperor Shah Jehan. The prudent Emperor deputed Inayat Khan, one of the Umara (grandees), of his Court to ascertain the real facts. The grandee visited the naked saint and his report was most favorable if not reassuring. Prince Dara Shikoh was one of the many disciples of Sarmad and the tutor had predicted that Dara Shikoh would be the next Emperor after Shah Jehan. Which prediction was not however fulfilled through the treachery of Aurengzebe who ascended the throne of the mighty Moguls by first imprisoning his father and then murdered his two brothers, Dara Shikoh and Murad Baksh.

Aurangzebe hated Sarmad for having been a partisan of Dara Shikoh on whom he had promised to confer the throne When Aurungzebe had usurped the throne, he taunted Sarmad about the succession of his favorite disciple, Dara Shikoh to the throne, which he had promised him. Sarmad calmly replied : “God has given him the eternal sovereignty and my promise is not falsified." Needless to add that the Emperor was greatly displeased and incensed with this sarcastic reply of the naked (*3) saint and from that moment he decided to put an end to that poor man's life. The favorable moment was [170] not long in coming, as Sarmad, who was a Sufi,(*4) had expressed sentiments of a heretical nature in the following distich, ridiculing the nocturnal journey of Mohammed to heaven .
"The Mullas say that Abroad went to heaven.
Sarmad says that heaven came down to Ahmad".
According to the Sufis who believe in the unity of the creator and the created, there is nothing objectionable in this doctrine, moreover as in the opinion of certain Ulama, the Miraj, or the nocturnal journey of Mahomed to heaven was allegorical and spiritual, but a fanatic and a bigot like Aurungzebe, could not possibly tolerate such a blasphemy, open and palpable, that was likely to shake the foundation of the Mohammedan faith.

The supreme moment had at last arrived for Aurungzebe to wreak his vengeance on the harmless naked saint and scholar and he immediately ordered his execution.
It is said that when the condemned man was being led away from the tribunal to the place of execution, he uttered, ex tempore, 24 quatrains. The crowd was so dense that one could pass through it with great difficulty.
When the executioner, a low caste man of the sweeper class, approached him with his naked sword, he wanted, according to custom, to cover the condemned man's head, but Sarmad hinted not to do it, then he smiled and addressing the executioner said :—
"The friend with naked sword has now arrived
In whatever disguise thou mayst come, I recognize thee,
He also uttered the following distich :
“There was an uproar and we opened our eyes from the eternal sleep.
[171] Saw that the night of wickedness endured, so we slept again".

Aqil Khan Razi, the court chronicler of Aurungzebe, writes that when the executioner was about to inflict the fatal blow, Sarmad uttered :
"The nakedness the body was the dust of the road to the friend,
That too was severed, with the sword, from our head".
According to another version Sarmad uttered :
"My head was severed from the body by that flirt, who was my companion,
The story was shortened, otherwise the headache would have been too severe".
One of the companions of Sarmad, one Shah Asadullah, went up to him and told him
"Do cover your nakedness and utter the creed in full and you will be let off".
Sarmad looked up, said nothing in reply but uttered the following couplet :
"A long time since the fame of Mansur became an ancient relic,
I will exhibit with my head the sallow and the cord”.

Sarmad died cheerfully and with complete resignation like every Armenian that has suffered martyrdom, for his religion, at the hands of the Mohammedans during the past 1300 years. Prince Dara Shikoh, the disciple of Sarmad, and the rightful heir to the throne of the Moguls, was beheaded by the order of his younger brother, that consummate hypocrite and fanatic Aurungzebe, in the year 1069 A.H. (1659 A.D.) and two years later, Sarmad shared the fate of his royal pupil, “and from that day", says a native historian, "the house of Timour declined both in glory and power".
He was beheaded in 1661 near the Jama MusJid at Delhi, for heresy, in the midst of an unprecedentedly huge crowd and though not a Mohammedan, yet he was buried under the steps [172] of the great mosque where his grave is venerated to this day, by Hindus as well as Mohammedans, who make offerings of flowers, light candles and burn incense on the saint's revered grave, after his martyrdom 275 years ago. Sarmad was considered well inspired and a man of sanctity.
The people of India have not forgotten that the harmless naked saint was killed by the order of Aurungzebe because he loved Dara Shikoh and championed his cause.

It is recorded that on the day of the execution, the Emperor said to the ecclesiastics (fudala) that a man was not liable to be executed merely for his nudity but that he should be required to pronounce the Islamic creed. Addressing the saint, they said "How is it that inspite of your great learning, you only utter the first half of the Kalima(*5) or creed and not the remaining part"? Sarmad replied that "I am still absorbed in the negative part, why shall I tell a lie"? So, according to this version, Sarmad's execution, at the suggestion of the Emperor was made according to the Islamic Law. So far as can be seen, the execution, in the opinion of the fanatic Aurungzebe, was necessary from a religious point of view.
Living the life of a nude mendicant, composing delightful quatrains, some of which may well be compared with those of Omar Khayyam, yet Sarmad interested himself in politics by becoming a partisan of Dara Shikoh whom he predicted to be Shah Jehan's rightful successor. This was gall and wormwood to Aurungzebe. Sarmad was the center of attraction to the public at Delhi. Dara was condemned and beheaded because of his apostacy and Sarmad was condemned and killed for having contributed partly to that apostacy. Deeply as he disliked his eldest brother Dara, for his politics and leanings towards the tenets of non-Muslims and mendicants, (majazib), his first act, as soon as he came to power, was to remove that arch heretic and those who had aided and abetted him in his apostacy and political activities. Sarmad who was a Sufi and [173] a mystic philosopher was a great Persian scholar and had read science and metaphysics with such well known and distinguished scholars as Mulla Sadr-ud-din Shirazi, Mirza Abul Qasim Fandarsaki and other eminent scholars of the time.
Sarmad was so filled with divine love that to him the king, the judge, the executioner, the whole universe, including himself, were the same. The soul itself and the universe were merged into Divinity. He had no consciousness of himself.

The following letter which Prince Dara Shikoh addressed to Sarmad shows the high regard the royal pupil had for his saintly master:
My Pir and Preceptor—
Everyday I resolve to pay my respects to you. It remains unaccomplished. If I be I, wherefore is my intention of no account? If I be not—what is my fault? Though the murder of Imam Hossain was the will of God: Who is (then) Yazid between (them). If it is not the Divine Will, then what is the meaning of "God does whatever He wills and commands whatever He intends”? The most excellent prophet used to go to fight the unbelievers, defeat was inflicted on the army of Islam. The exoteric scholars say it was an education in resignation. For the perfect what education was necessary?" Sarmad's reply to the above epistle consisted of two lines, in verse, which can be translated thus :—

“My dear—
What we have read, we have forgotten,
Save the discourse of the Friend which we reiterate.”

Sarmad's name stands prominent in the republic of letters. Daghistani calls him eminent in learning and Arabic scholarship. His impromptus are very popular in Delhi. His poems consist mostly of quatrains. In a quatrian(*6) Sarmad says that he follows Hafez in qazal and Omar Khayyam in rubaiyat.
[174] All the biographical works of the Persian poets that have been written after him contain appreciative and highly eulogistic notices of Sarmad.
His favorite companion and disciple, Abhai Chand who was the son of a wealthy Hindoo rajah, according to Nasrabadi, left his father, mother, home and wealth and adopted the life of a mendicant and took to sitting on ashes like the Hindoo faqirs. According to the same writer. Abhai Chand, died soon after Sarmad was beheaded through intense grief.

As we have said, Sarmad was a Sufi poet and there are verses which he composed that might be construed by a bigot as being against Islamic religion and on account of such opinion, he brought on his head the wrath of the Emperor Aurungzebe who was a stem puritan all his life and a bigoted champion of orthodoxy. His fanaticism, intolerance and his inordinate zeal for the Mohammedan religion were the main causes of the downfall of the glorious Mogul Empire in India.
Sarmad who was a theist, taunted the fanatic Aurungzebe with the following caustic quatrain ; declaring his religious convictions and openly proclaiming, to the chagrin of the Emperor, that he was not a Mohammedan.
It can be translated thus :—
“O ! King of Kings, I am not a hermit like thee, I am not nude.
I am frenzied, I am distracted, but I am not depressed,
I am an idolater, I am an infidel, I am not of the people of the faith,
I go towards the mosque, but I am not a Muslim.”
No complete collection of the quatrains of Sarmad have been published, though a few of them have been lithographed [175] at Lahore, Delhi and Bombay, with biographical notices of the poet in the Urdu language.

According to Dr. Rieu, more than 400 of the quatrains of Sarmad are preserved in MS. in the British Museum. There is in the well-known Oriental Library of Rampur State a MS. copy of the Diwan of Sarmad, containing the portrait of the poet, with his disciple Abhai Chand.
Francois Bernier, M.D., a French physician at the Court of Shah Jehan, writing of naked Hindu faqi'rs, in his Travels in Hindusthan, refers to Sarmad as follows :
"I have seen for a long while a very famous one in Delhi, called Sarmet, who went thus stark naked along the streets, and who at length would rather suffer his neck to be cut off, than to put on any clothes, what promises or menaces soever Aurung Zebe might send to him.
" On hearing of Sarmad's death, Bernier wrote as follows:—
"I was for a long time disgusted with a celebrated Fakir, named Sarmet, who walked in the streets of Delhi as naked as he came to the world. He despised equally the threats and persuations of Aurungzebe and underwent at length the punishment of decapitation for his obstinate refusal to put on his wearing apparel."

Another European, Niccolao Manucci, in his “Storia do Mogor” (as translated by William Irvine, 1901) writes :—
Vol. I, p. 223 : Dara held to no religion, when with Mahommedans, he praised the tenets of Muhammad, when with Jews, the Jewish religion ; in the same way. when with Hindus. he praised Hinduism. This is why Aurungzebe styled him a kafir (infidel). At the same time, he had great delight in talking to the Jesuit fathers on religion, and making them dispute with his learned Mahommedans, or with Cermad [Sarmad] an atheist much liked by the prince. This man went always naked, except when he appeared in the presence [176] of the prince when he contented himself with a piece of cloth at his waist.”
And on p. 384, he says :
"After the death of his brother. Dara, Aurungzib ordered them to bring to his presence Acermaad [Sarmad], the atheist, to whom Dara had been devoted, and asked him where was his devoted prince. He replied that he was then present, 'but you cannot see him for you tyrannize over those of your own blood; and in order to usurp the Kingdom, you took away the life of your brothers and did other barbarities. On hearing these words. Aurungzebe ordered his head to be cut off."

We have seen in the beginning of this Chapter, on the authority of that well-informed author of the "Oriental Biographical Dictionary", that Sarmad was an Armenian who like his countrymen, had come to India for the purposes of trade. which in those days was the sole occupation of the Armenians in India. And in the prefaces to the Lahore and the Delhi editions of Sarmad’s quatrains (rubayat) by learned biographers he is called an Armenian by nationality and a Christian by religion yet there are some Mohammedan historians and biographers who say Sarmad was a Jew(*7) from Kashan in Persia and a convert to Islam.

There lived in Calcutta an eminent Persian scholar and a journalist, the late Syed Agah Jalaluddin-al-Hossaini, known as Muyyid-al-Islam, who was, by a strange coincidence, .a native of Kashan, the supposed birthplace of the poet, Sarmad. In order to satisfy ourselves about the vexed question of the poet s nationality we thought of seeking his advice in the matter some eight years ago as he was a great authority on Persian poets, their lives and their works. [177]
We called on the veteran journalist who had unfortunately lost his sight during the latter years of his life and found him lying on an easy chair, in the editorial office, dictating an editorial to his scribe for his favorite Hablul-Malin. After the usual salutations and compliments we asked the Persian sage about the nationality of Sarmad and the country he hailed from. He was greatly surprised that we, a countryman of the poet, should have any doubts in the matter, as Sarmad was known to be an Armenian from Persia. When we told him that a certain Mohammedan writer had said in a public lecture that Sarmad was a Jew from Kashan, he was -highly amused and remarked sarcastically that it was not possible for a persecuted, miserable, unkempt, unwashed and unlettered Jew of Kashan to rise to the proud and enviable position of a famous Persian poet.
When we were wishing him good-bye and expressing our thanks for his kind courtesy, the good old man wished to know the reason of our enquiry about the poets nationality. We told him that we intended writing an account of Sarmad in one of the leading Armenian journals and did not wish to commit ourselves, whereupon he said in an authoritative tone, “go and write that Muayyid-al-Islam says that Sarmad was an Armenian from Iran" (Bero benevis khe Muayyid-al-Islam meegooiad khe Sarmad Armanee bood az Iran).

Sher Khan Lodi, who was a celebrated poet in the reign of the Emperor Aurungzebe and had ample opportunities of seeing Sarmad, states, in his Life of poets, called Maratal Khial, that Hakhim Sarmad was an Armenian from Faranghisthan (Europe) and was originally engaged in trade when he came out to India.


[179]There are some interesting anecdotes, founded on traditions, about the supernatural powers of Sarmad, prevalent amongst the people of Delhi to this day, for the truth of which we cannot vouch. It is said that the Emperor Aurungzebe who was a puritan, had strictly forbidden the use of bhang as a narcotic because of its deleterious effects. One of the many spies of the King reported to him that Sarmad, in defiance of the royal fiat, was addicted to the vice of smoking bhang and that he kept the drug in an earthen pot near him always wherever he sat. This was good news for Aurungzebe who was always trying to find fault with the poet whom he hated with a deadly hatred. He paid a sudden visit to Sarmad and found the poet lecturing to his disciples. He at once noticed the earthen pot and asked Sarmad what it contained. The poet suspecting that the Emperor had been apprised of the contents of the earthen pot, replied nonchalantly that it contained some milk and on the Emperor pressing him to show him the milk, Sarmad most unconcernedly uncovered the pot and lo and behold there was milk in it. His disciples who knew what the earthen pot contained originally were simply amazed and spread the news of the miracle performed by their master in converting the harmful bhang into harmless milk.

There is another anecdote equally interesting. One day Sarmad was watching a mollah praying earnestly and with great devotion in the Juma Musjid at Delhi. The poet told his followers that the mollah's god was under his (Sarmad's) feet. A spy immediately carried the news to Aurungzebe who was praying in the mosque at the same time, it being a Friday. The irate Emperor came up to Sarmad and ordered him immediately to give a satisfactory explanation for his blasphemy. Sarmad who could never be intimidated by Aurungzebe, told him to send for the mollah and ask him to confess what he was praying for. The nervous ecclesiastic, who was trembling in his shoes in the presence of the stern monarch, nolens volens confessed that he was praying to God to grant him some money to enable him to get his daughter married.
Sarmad remarked that the mollah had spoken the truth for once in his life and asked Aurungzebe to get his men to dig [180] the ground where he stood and on digging the place they found some gold coins buried there.
Sarmad was jubilant over the discovery and told the astonished Emperor in his usual cynical tone that he was not wrong when he said that the mollah's god was under his feet.
Aurungzebe was nonplussed and confounded but the news spread with lightening speed that Sarmad had worked another miracle.
Any wonder then that Aurungzebe hated Sarmad with the deadly hatred of a fanatic and wished to put an end to the life of an unbeliever who was looked upon as a saint and a holy man by the public in the early years of his reign of intolerance and religious persecution.

Whilst these lines were passing through the press, we were informed by the gallery assistant of the Delhi Fort Museum that there is an inscription on Sarmad's tombstone.
We reproduce his letter which is as follows :—
"In reply to your enquiry. I beg to inform you that at the head of Sarmad's grave, there is a masonry pillar with lamp niches and on it has been fixed an incised slab of stone containing
the following inscription in Persian :—
Which can be translated thus :—
When Shah Sarmad in the reign of Alamgeer
[Aurungzebe] set out on a journey to Paradise.
Poor Akbar said the date,
"This is the grave of Sarmad the Martyr”.

The people in Delhi greatly venerate the grave of Sarmad and daily burn lights and incenses and sprinkle fresh roses and flowers on it. The Muslims who come to Delhi from far and near never miss a visit to the grave of this saint. Besides, the musicians sing religious songs at the grave of Sarmad nearly every evening and particularly on Thursdays. A class of [181] illiterate Muslims also celebrate the festival of Basant near its grave."

Peace to his soul, rest to his ashes and may the revered memory of the great poet be cherished and kept green, for ages to be, in the land where he suffered martyrdom for his open defiance of Islamic rituals and customs.


[194] We cannot conclude this chapter without recording our grateful thanks to Hakim Habibur Rahman, the well-known Yunani physician of Dacca and a good Persian scholar, for having brought to our notice, some eight years ago, that the renowned poet SARMAD was an ARMENIAN. ....


(*1) [167] Keene is the author of several learned works on Indian history notably of the Mogul period. His Turks in India and The Mogul Empire are master-pieces. He has compiled interesting Guide Books to Delhi and Agra, replete with historical and topographical information. He was Judge at Agra in 1879.

(*2) [168] According to Mohammedan historians and biographers it was a Hindu lad of the Bunnia caste, Abhai Chand by name.

(*3) [169] In a quatrain (rubai) addressed to his relentless persecutor the Emperor Aurungzebe, Sarmad gives the reason of his nudity: “He who save you the sovereignty of the world. Gave me all the causes of anxiety. He covered with a garment those who had any fault (deformity) To the faultless he gave the robe of nudity."

(*4) [170] For a history of the origin and the growth of Sufism in Persia, see the note at the end of this Chapter.

(*5) [172] The first part of the Kalima, which is in Arabic, can be translated thus : "There is no God but God" (La Ala Allalah) and the second part, "And Mohaaunad is his prophet" (Mohammad rasool Allah). It was quite natural that Sarmad refused to utter the second part of the Kalima, not being a Mohammedan.

(*6) [173] Sarmad pays a well-deserved compliment to Hafez and Khayyam, two of the greatest poets of Persia, in the following quatrain :— "I have no business with the fancy and thought of others, In composing a ghazal I adopt the manner of Hafez, But in rubai, I am a disciple of Khayyam, But do no quaff much of his wine."

(*7) [176] There are no records of Jews coming to India from Persia for the purposes of trade in the 16th, 17th or 18th centuries. The Sassoons, the Jacobs and other merchant princes of Bombay came From Baghdad in Mesopotomia, so did the Ezras, the Gubbays and the Manassehs of Calcutta in the early part of the l9th century.